Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
Chronologically, Sophocles was the second in the triumvirate of great Greek playwrights, the others being Aeschylus and Euripides. Born in 496 B.C. in the rural suburb of Colonus, near Athens, he lived there through most of the fifth century B.C., dying in 406 B.C. Though his father, Sophilius, owned an arms factory in Athens, Sophocles showed little or no interest in political and military affairs. Instead, he became well versed in the competitive rites of Athenian culture, and, as a youth, won prizes in wrestling and music. At age fifteen, he led the Choral paean to celebrate the famous Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis.
Sophocles produced his first set of plays in 468 B.C. They were immediately successful, and he was awarded the coveted first place at the Dionysian festival that took place every spring, winning over his own mentor, Aeschylus. He went on to win the first prize on at least 18 to 20 occasions and ranked second several other times. Ironically, his greatest play, Oedipus the King, managed only a second place, perhaps due to biased judging. Sophocles also staged his plays at the "henaea", the annual feast of the wine-vats held each January in Athens after 450 B.C. The feast included elaborate processions, rituals, and dramatic contests.
Sophocles learned much of his art from Aeschylus, the "father of Greek tragedy," but developed his own innovations to Greek drama. He increased the chorus strength from 12 to 15, included the use of painted scenery on stage, and introduced a third actor as a key figure in the play. (Aeschylus sometime used a third actor, but in a rather limited role.)
Sophocles had two sons. The first was Iophon, the tragedian, by his legal wife, Nicostrate. Later in life, he had a second son Agathon (father of the younger Sophocles), by his mistress, Theoris of Sicyon. Literary critics have speculated that his final work Oedipus At Colonus was intended as a retort to his eldest son, Iophon, who during a legal dispute over the family property had accused Sophocles of being senile. To counter this accusation, the great dramatist recited before the court an ode from this play and proved his sanity. The play was produced posthumously on stage by his grandson (also called Sophocles "the younger") in 401 B.C., five years after Sophocles' death. In fact, Sophocles died just a few months after his great contemporary and fellow-playwright, Euripides, in whose honor he wrote his famous elegiac chorus. On the eve of the Dionysian festival in 406 B.C., Sophocles, with his actors and chorus, appeared in mourning garb (not wearing the usual garlands) and recited it before an audience that was deeply touched by its message.